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DeSantis’s effort to blame Biden for the covid surge in Florida

(Cristobal Herrera-Ulashkevich/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

“Joe Biden has the nerve to tell me to get out of the way on COVID while he lets COVID-infected migrants pour over our southern border by the hundreds of thousands. No elected official is doing more to enable the transmission of COVID in America than Joe Biden with his open borders policies.”

— Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), in a fundraising letter, Aug. 4

“He’s imported more virus from around the world by having a wide-open southern border.”

— DeSantis, during a news conference, Aug. 4

Florida appears to be in the grip of the delta variant as covid-19 hospitalizations keep breaking records. DeSantis has insisted he’s handled the crisis with aplomb, even as he has fought against coronavirus vaccine mandates and barred schools from implementing mask requirements for students. (Some districts are defying his order.)

After President Biden expressed frustration with unnamed governors who had resisted government recommendations for mask-wearing, DeSantis lashed out at a news conference, claiming that Biden’s immigration policies have helped “facilitate” the virus in the United States. DeSantis, a potential 2024 presidential hopeful, followed up with a more pointed claim in a fundraising letter that suggested Biden was a “power-hungry tyrant.”

There’s certainly a big increase in the number of people seeking to cross the southern border. Apprehensions under immigration law and coronavirus-related expulsions stemming from apprehensions totaled 169,204 in March, 173,686 in April, 172,627 in May and 178,416 in June. A government official in a court filing said the numbers for July will be even higher. “Based on current trends, the Department expects that total encounters this fiscal year are likely to be the highest ever recorded,” said David Shahoulian, assistant Homeland Security secretary for border and security policy.

But can DeSantis really blame the border situation for the health crisis on his watch?

The Facts

Because of Title 42, which President Donald Trump implemented in March 2020 and Biden is considering ending, border authorities are denying entry to migrants more easily and expeditiously and in greater numbers than under immigration law. This is a public health emergency declaration, and it’s had a big effect in turning back migrants, whether coronavirus carriers or otherwise.

Shahoulian’s statement said that the Rio Grande Valley experienced a disproportionate number of these encounters, along with the Del Rio border sector. So let’s use this as a discrete example, given we have a lot of recent data for a key part of this region.

In recent days, the city of McAllen, Tex., in Hidalgo County, has sounded the alarm about “the shockingly large number of immigrants released by CBP,” which has overwhelmed a Humanitarian Respite Center run by the Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley. The center is intended to make sure migrants are not on McAllen’s streets between their release from border control custody and their departure to destinations elsewhere in the United States, where immigration courts will decide their cases.

The city says about 87,000 migrants have passed through the city limits so far in 2021.

Usually, migrants pass through the city in one day, but the flow of people of the Respite Center surged to more than 1,900 — and it only has capacity for 1,236. So the city announced Aug. 4 that it was erecting temporary emergency tent shelters to deal with the surge.

In a video statement, McAllen Mayor Javier Villalobos (R) pinned the blame for the situation on “Washington,” telling citizens to write to Biden, their senators and member of Congress to complain.

The city said that since mid-February, there have been over 7,000 confirmed positive coronavirus cases among the immigrants admitted into McAllen, including more than 1,500 new cases in the past seven days. These numbers have been in the news a lot, so let’s put them in context.

Recall that 87,000 immigrants have arrived in the city this year. With most of the surge starting in February, that suggests a positivity rate of about 8 percent.

The positivity rate has obviously increased along with the prevalence of the delta variant. A July 30 statement from the city said the positivity rate among migrants was about 13.1 percent, an increase from 11.7 percent the week before.

But that’s still better than how Hidalgo County itself has fared in this period, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The rate in the county has spiked even higher, to 18.55 percent as of Aug. 3. The Covid Act Now website says the risk level in the county is now “very high.”

Brenda Riojas, a spokeswoman for Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, says that any migrants who test positive for the virus that causes covid-19 are immediately isolated (along with family members who might have been exposed but test negative). They are not released until they test negative, so they have little interaction with the local community.

Nevertheless, some local officials have expressed concern about the housing of coronavirus-positive migrants in local hotels, often without disclosure by the organization. One Fox News report in July said an entire hotel had been rented out to coronavirus-positive migrants, and an obviously ill family staying there had been spotted eating at a local Whataburger restaurant.

That’s a slim reed on which to build a case that the migrants are spreading the disease across the country, more so than other factors.

There is a big unknown variable that complicates these calculations — how many undocumented immigrants are slipping through the border undetected and are not showing up in official data.

DHS produces two statistics designed to estimate how many migrants who seek to cross the border are apprehended. In 2020, the Trump administration said that in fiscal 2018, one measure found almost 70 percent were apprehended and another calculated that more than 75 percent were caught. “Overall, both available measures of the apprehension rate indicate that USBP apprehends large majorities of intending border crossers, and that the apprehension rate has substantially improved over the last decade,” a DHS report said. But it’s unclear whether the same percentages would apply to the current surge.

There also is no easily available data on how many undocumented immigrants are making their way to Florida as they await court appearances. However, we did find data for unaccompanied children released by sponsors. For the fiscal year starting in October, 6,254 children were released to Florida, or about 10 percent of the total. Florida has about 6.5 percent of the total U.S. population, but its high percentage of Hispanics would make it attractive for Spanish-speaking migrants.

We received a long statement from DeSantis’s office in defense of his comments.

“What we know from official data is that about 200,000 people cross the border illegally every month. They come from over 100 countries, and some of those countries where a significant portion of the migrants hail from, such as Haiti, have extremely low rates of COVID vaccination. Therefore — When the Biden administration discusses implementing vaccine passports for legal immigrants and tourists coming to our country, but allows the free movement of illegal immigrants through the border and around the country (especially to Florida, which 70% of migrants detained and interviewed by our state law enforcement assisting with border security in Texas reported as their final destination) without any mitigation measures, that is hypocritical.
If President Biden was serious about “shutting down the virus” as he promised, his open border policies do not make any sense. At the very least, it’s unfair (not to mention unscientific) that legal immigrants, tourists, and even American citizens are subject to more stringent COVID restrictions than illegal immigrants are. If public health recommendations are about public health, these recommendations should apply to all people equally.
Hospitals report data on inpatient bed usage, ICU capacity, COVID hospitalizations, and other metrics directly to HHS, but they do not report citizenship status of patients, as far as I am aware. The concern is that some people could be feeling fine, but carrying variants from different countries and spreading them to higher risk individuals, who then get extremely ill.
Of course, migration isn’t the only factor in COVID spread, and the governor has never implied that to be the case. The main issue that Governor DeSantis highlighted with his comments yesterday was the paradoxical nature of the Biden Administration’s support for additional restrictions on Americans and lawful immigrants (namely, the WH support for vaccine passports) while allowing illegal migrants to cross the border and travel through the country freely.

Christina Pushaw, the governor’s press secretary, added in a follow-up email: “Your mistake here is in assuming that all the migrants who cross the southern border are actually apprehended. That’s not the case. There’s no official measure of how many people succeed in crossing the border illegally, much less how many are COVID positive. Our southern border is porous, and the Biden admin has done nothing to change that. That’s what Governor DeSantis was highlighting in his remarks yesterday.”

The Pinocchio Test

At this point, there is little reason to believe the positivity rate of the migrants who have not been apprehended is much different from the positivity rate of those who are apprehended. What we do know is that the positivity rate in the center of the Rio Grande Valley region — Hidalgo County — is higher than the rate attributed to undocumented immigrants who have been caught. Could some migrants have infected U.S. citizens? Of course. But given that Catholic Charities seeks to isolate migrants who test positive, the odds appear relatively small.

DeSantis has long argued he handled the pandemic better than many other governors. Now he faces a crisis. Whether it is one of his own making remains to be determined, but it make little sense to point the finger at Biden based on guesswork and assumptions, not evidence. It’s certainly rhetorical overkill to assert that “no elected official is doing more to enable the transmission of COVID in America than Joe Biden.”

We cannot completely rule out some spread of the coronavirus because of illegal immigration, but so far we do not see evidence to support his claim.

Three Pinocchios

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